TREVOR FREESTONE’S MEMOIR of life as a teacher in pre-independence Papua New Guinea is exactly as I expected it to be – modest and a little bit quirky.
He was there from 1963 until 1975; firstly in East and West Sepik and then in the Eastern Highlands. He left when life for many Europeans in outlying areas became more or less untenable because of the rising violence brought about by alcohol abuse.
The account is modest in two senses. Trevor doesn’t make any grandiose claims but he is nevertheless proud of his small achievements. And this is a modestly short book, running to just under 90 pages.
Trevor is quirky because of some of his teaching methods, which included the use of magic. This developed to such an extent that he was buying magicians supplies while on leave and bringing them back to PNG with him.
He even became a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians so he could get access to their secrets.
After a while he expanded his repertoire to include pyrotechnics and extended these activities to the extramural. It was no wonder that other Europeans in the area regarded him as weird.
They also thought he was a bit strange because of his preference for integrating into the local community rather than remaining aloof as expected.
Trevor seems to have decided on this approach at Ambunti in East Sepik and continued with it when he was transferred to Pagei in West Sepik and then Watabung in the Eastern Highlands.
I must admit that, in these present heightened times, I was getting a bit worried about the closeness that he developed with his students.
But at Pagei he courted a local girl and at Watabung married another local lass; three times – once traditionally, once in church and once in front of the District Commissioner.
He and Anna were well and truly married. He doesn’t say, but I’m guessing that he and his wife have led a long and happy life together.
The romance at impoverished and low-populated Pagei ran afoul of the complications of the local custom of sister exchange but at Watabung he had no trouble with bride price.
He returned for a visit in 2008 and was pleased to see that the school that he had so lovingly nurtured, despite all its problems, not least being on the Okuk (Highlands) Highway, had survived and maintained its reputation. As an added fillip the locals renamed the school ‘The Trevor Freestone Primary School Watabung’.
Compared to the prolific kiaps, you don’t see a lot of memoirs by chalkies and, even though this one is short, it is expansive beyond teaching and well worth a read by anyone generally interested in the history of Papua New Guinea.
Trevor has an interesting take on the breakdown of law and order for instance. He dates it to the time when the kiaps lost much of their legal jurisdiction to the police force.
He says that whereas the kiaps were living out in the communities and had tabs on everything going on around them the police were centrally based in the towns and separated from local people.
Problems which might have been resolved by a quiet word in the right ear suddenly became the subject of the hard boot of the law.
I can remember the frustration of having to report crimes to the police in Mount Hagen and then waiting days, sometimes weeks, before they got round to attending to it.
It was one of the reasons why I fled to the wilds of the Western District where the kiap still held sway.
Trevor also makes some astute comments about other issues, like the inherent racism among the American missionaries and the failure of both the Australian administration and later the government of Papua New Guinea to capitalise on PNG’s unique tourism assets.
Like a lot of us Trevor went to Papua New Guinea to escape mundane employment in Australia. By all accounts he was successful.
Trevor self-published his book using a company called Xlibris, which is how I came across it.
It is well-written in an easy and pleasant style. The cover photographs are a bit fuzzy and there are a few typos in the text that shouldn’t be there. They are of the type that authors become blinded to but which the publisher should have picked up.
I got my copy through Amazon but it is available through email@example.com.